Before the Golden State Warriors could blow a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder had to go and blow a 3-1 lead of its own in the Western Conference finals against those same Warriors. In a year full of startling conclusions, this is the bang they went out on.
In a vacuum, noticing the “Lost NBA Western Conference finals (3-4)” designation next to the 2015-16 Thunder’s name might not seem all that galling. This was the first full (technically, as the 2011-12 turn was lockout-addled) and healthy season that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook paired together as championship contenders while working in their primes, and falling just short of taking that act to the Finals (especially with Game 7 played on the road, against a team that was pining for its 85th win in 99 tries) looks like a worthy, if not slightly disappointing, exercise.
The move into championship contention was impressive. Durant and Westbrook didn’t exactly look as if they spoke in languages that only twins could understand, but the “your turn; my turn”-style of offense still resulted in the Thunder ranking only behind those Warriors in 2015-16 on that end. It also came at the behest of a rookie coach, though Billy Donovan will be the first to tell you that the hand he was dealt upon entering the NBA as a lead coach last season was historically good.
Donovan’s capability was never in question: Billy played in the pros, led Florida to two national championships in the NCAAs, nearly joined the Magic as a head coach in 2007 while showcasing little of the used car salesman/life and laundry in a Gladstone bag-shtick that got in the way of past NCAA-to-NBA head men thinking that they had this league sussed by the time Thanksgiving even hit. Blessed with just 18 combined missed games from Durant, Westbrook, Enes Kanter, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams, Donovan did exceptionally well to keep the team focused for the long haul while attempting to disassociate itself from Durant’s impending free agent turn.
What Donovan couldn’t do anything about, until the bitter end, was OKC’s inability to clamp down on close games. Throughout the regular and postseason the team’s unmatched ability to give away leads or return from manageable deficits cost the team a sparkling image while adding a whole lot of creeping self-doubt.
This wasn’t enough to stop them from eventually overcoming the 67-win San Antonio Spurs, nor did it get in the way of MVP-level seasons from Westbrook and Durant. Losing three straight to the Warriors to end a season stung then as it does now, but it doesn’t fully take away from the fact that the Thunder took three of four from Golden State just a few days prior, something no other team or set of teams had done all season. Prior to another team doing it two weeks later when the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
Career years abounded, the team managed to overcome the stylings of Dion Waiters, the sometimes-there perimeter presence of Andre Roberson, and nearly 1000 minutes from Kyle Singler. In all, despite the Conference finals loss, it should have been a wholly satisfying season for one of the NBA’s best teams.
And we completely understand if Oklahoma City Thunder fans want to stop reading at this point.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
Walked in with my brosssssss…
— Russell Westbrook (@russwest44) July 2, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
No. No it did not.
The Thunder will have it better than some of the other teams in NBA history that have lost a premier star. LeBron James left Cleveland with the cupboard bare, and the sheer hubris of the team’s front office and ownership group responded to what they characterized as a minor setback by going out and signing Jamario Moon. Michael Jordan left the 1998 Chicago Bulls with nothing; but that was at the Bulls’ front office’s behest. Shaquille O’Neal left Orlando for no compensation, with Penny Hardaway’s knee injuries about to hit. Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar returned relatively little in trade dealings to their previous teams.
The Thunder has it better, in the wake of Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors as a free agent. They’ll still have Russell Westbrook, an MVP candidate both with Durant and without, and the team’s rotation remains enviable in many fronts. The team’s general manager Sam Presti, working in opposition to the same skinflint ownership group that swindled its way out of Seattle in the first place, remained proactive throughout the offseason. Russell Westbrook even signed a contract extension.
Kevin Durant is gone, though, for nothing. Without pre-2015-16 knowledge of his thinking the team couldn’t even cobble together a Nerve of the Century Deal in trading Durant for a series of low-usage shooters and passers to surround Westbrook with. It’s possible that, despite their many talents Russell and Kevin may never have won a championship together; but that’s cold comfort in the face of Durant leaving for the team that barely downed the Thunder last spring.
Prior to Durant’s move to the Bay Area, Presti made a shocker of a deal in sending longtime center/forward Serge Ibaka to Orlando in exchange for hybrid (though hopefully not for long) guard Victor Oladipo and a draft pick that turned into rookie big man Domantas Sabonis. Throw in the deal to make salaries work was stretch four Ersan Ilyasova, who might start this season with perimeter shooting at a premium in Durant’s absence.
Dion Waiters is gone, in what will act as an addition-by-subtraction move for a team that somehow ranked among the league’s best offenses even with the panicky swingman on board, as is combo guard Randy Foye. Ronnie Price will provide more than adequate relief as a reserve point guard (and a potential embarrassment of riches should Cameron Payne return to full health this season), while sweet-shooting swingman Alex Abrines intrigues as a potential answer to Oklahoma City’s post-Durant prayers from the perimeter.
You were reminded correctly. We are in Post-Durant Mode, and in spite of Russell Westbrook’s looming presence there is no telling just how long this particular Mode will be in place for.
Potential breakout stud:
The appropriate breakout will belong to Westbrook. He is but a pair of seasons removed from making Kobe Bryant look demure in his approach to dominating the ball, and with no healthy Durant cameos left to get in his way Westbrook should have the green light needed to not only challenge for MVP consideration, but keep the Thunder afloat in these wearying times.
With his candidacy already assured, we look one step up the starting lineup peg to see Victor Oladipo, finally revealed as a Wild Boy.
Oladipo doesn’t often paint a pretty picture. Shoehorned into life as a sometimes-point guard in seasons’ past, he struggles even as an off guard to mind his footwork properly when pinched into making quick decisions with the ball in the screen and roll game, he’ll never be confused as a lights-out shooter, and his ability to get to the free throw line (running in direct betrayal of the hopes pinned on him coming out of college) can hardly be characterized as “Dwyane Wade-esque.”
The man is an intelligent and willing ballplayer, though, who has worked his way through several roles on varying Orlando Magic teams through three previous seasons, and he could develop into the sort of nonstop mover that the Thunder had pictured when it dealt for Dion Waiters. Oladipo, in working off of a fellow non-shooter in Russell Westbrook, could make life hellish for opposing defenses if he submits to unending cuts and heady decision-making. We’ve no doubt that Billy Donovan, noting Oladipo’s presence all the way back in June, already has a plan or 12 in place.
With the hole created by Durant and Serge Ibaka’s absence, to say nothing of Dion Waiters’ waving arms only appearing in apparition form, Oladipo could bang his way to nearly 20 points a night.
The question is, after averaging nearly 18 and 16 points per contest on two poor Magic teams in 2014-15 and 2015-16, will that be enough to keep the Thunder relevant?
There is some precedence here. Tom Thibodeau’s 2011 and 2012 Chicago Bulls teams, mostly led by Derrick Rose during his per-injury dervish days, managed to grab the league’s top record two years in a row without even surrounding Rose with lights-out shooters at all positions, nor the litany of ball-handlers needed to take the playmaking burden off of the shoot-first point guard.
These Thunder remind along those personnel lines, and they do have rapport in spite of all the new faces and the absence of one major billboard mug. The team will be able to crash the boards on both ends while leaning into turnovers due to its wiry backcourt. Young workers like Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, Oladipo, Alex Abrines and (hopefully, given a return to full health) Payne are on the right side of 25, and Westbrook is anything if not indefatigable.
This is a buoyant group with obvious talent, featuring pros that won’t wear themselves out trying to send some sort of message Golden State’s way. There will be holes, but they will compete – and the hope is that this will turn into an inordinate amount of regular season wins based off of coin flip games (wins that weren’t in place during 2015-16), and the chance to unleash hell in a seven-game playoff series.
If everything falls apart:
For all the Thunder’s masterstrokes on the offensive end during 2015-16, they didn’t pin anyone’s ears back with just Westbrook on the floor, and the team played insipid offensive basketball without either of its stars on the pine last season. Westbrook will be pushed to his limits, that much is certain, but there will still be significant stretches of too-important minutes spent with Oladipo and/or Ronnie Price trying to create offense Westbrook taking a brief blow on the sidelines.
Worse to consider is the idea of Westbrook, who is three meniscus surgeries in, pushing things far past the 34.4 minutes per game he contributed in 80 regular season games and the 18-contest postseason run that followed.
The shooting, in Oklahoma City, is abysmal. The team’s coaching staff will have to let Oladipo and Abrines play through mistakes, while submitting to the idea that Anthony Morrow will offer slightly more good than bad after his entire term is settled. Ersan Ilyasova can’t have one of his random off years, and Andre Roberson can’t be made to look like a nightly millstone.
Somewhat frightening is the idea of Westbrook working, as he might see it, by his lonesome. In college and in the pros Westbrook has always had either a star to pair with (even if the two were hardly passing to each other), or the knowledge that an aching star teammate was soon set to return.
This will be a grind. And no amount of winsome “best” faces and media hype in giddy anticipation of his Thunderbolt Year will take away from the massive, potentially enervating role Russell Westbrook is about to assume.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
53-29, fifth in the Western Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz